Guilt is a gift, a form of God's grace to expose me to my true self and force me to take seriously my sin.
That haunting memory. The boil of regret. Lashing out on the wall. Sitting paralyzed. Wasting away.
I'm too often drawn back into my memory, reliving the past and remembering verbal blows exchanged. And some of the worst recollections involve careless or harsh words. One friendship was ruined by a single phrase misunderstood. In another memory my angry outburst wounded my family.
I remember one particular conversation my wife and I had with another couple from a former small group that got so heated and personal, it altered our relationship from that day forward. At the time I felt we were victims of injustice. Looking back, I realize much of the break stemmed from misunderstanding, suspicion, lack of trust and the need to be right — on their side, yes, but more importantly, on my side.
As I've thought back on that engagement, I've seen that my words contributed significantly to the degeneration of the relationship. But I'm caught. If only I could go back and change what I said. But that's one thing I can't do. If only I could make things right. But the damage seems irreparable. Apologies were made, but trust had been broken.
Words pack a punch, and the bruises they leave are not easily erased. How many of us wish we could change what we said in the heat of the moment? Words have sparked wars, broken marriages, destroyed friendships, and severed parents and children. Yet the damage from foolish words lay not only in those initial divides, but in the days of living with that memory emblazoned on our minds.
The memory is real. The pain is real. And the guilt is unrelenting.
The Good in Guilt
When I remember the foolish, harmful things I've said to another person, I often dwell on how my words made them resentful. My mind can become so absorbed with the memory that I can think about nothing but my own failure and misery. It's a crippling feeling, stopping me from walking forward in life.
How do I get out of it? I often get stuck in it. Some say, just think happier thoughts because, what good does it do to get dragged into the dumps by something you can't change? But I can ignore it for only so long, pretending the guilt vanishes when it actually just hides in a dark corner of my heart.
I sometimes try to suppress it by watching a film to get my mind off the guilt. Combine that with a bowl of Breyers, and the distraction works for a time. But you can't ease guilt by shoving aside its reality. Rather, the pangs prick my spirit to make me aware of where I really stand in relation to our perfect, good Creator.
Guilt is a gift, a form of God's grace to expose me to my true self and force me to take seriously my sin, whether it's a lashing tongue, a lustful thought or a lingering pride. God wants to break through my distractions, pull off my rose-colored glasses and show me the truth about myself and my future. The festering guilt can function for good, turning me to see my state before a holy God.
The psalmist David captures this feeling well. In Psalm 38:3-8, David writes of the psychosomatic effect of sin:
There is no soundness in my flesh
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
My wounds stink and fester
because of my foolishness,
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
In this passage, David describes the reason for his inward turmoil: his sin (see also Psalm 31:10). David's guilt had built up in him to the point that he could no longer bear it. That weight led him to cry out to God.
Too often I want to feel better about the wrong things I've done too quickly, but assuaging guilt prematurely makes matters worse. If freedom from guilt is based on a faulty foundation, it remains a lie — a lie that emboldens me to increase sin. And in the end the frame comes crashing down, leaving me on the ground stuck in guilt.
C. S. Lewis describes a skewed view of God that redefines "goodness" as passing over the ill in our lives. Lewis explains:
What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves," and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, "a good time was had by all."
But God is not a "senile benevolence." He's unwilling to sit by and let us run ourselves over a cliff, all in the name of "a good time." He's actively working to draw people to grace, using our inward languishing to bring us to the point of repentance, and so to heal our bones and quicken our spirits.
God's Transcendent Mercy
In Psalm 32, David again describes his "groaning all day long" because God's hand was "heavy" upon him "day and night" and his "strength was dried up as by the heat of summer" (Ps 32:3-4). But, he says, "I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,' and you forgave the iniquity of my sin" (Ps 32:5). Thus he could rejoice in God's mercy and proclaim, "Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (Ps 32:1).
Instead of wallowing in guilt, I can rise again when I come clean with God about what He already knows: my sinful words. I must dwell on His holy Word that speaks hope into my life, reorienting me to the truth about myself and God. Scripture says that in the midst of our guilt, "God shows his love for us"; we can, indeed must, approach God from that state, for "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).
Guilt forces us to face our reality, that we are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1). But God's rich mercy out of His great love transcends our guilt and gives us true freedom from anguish. He pulls me up from my immobile, lifeless state, stuck in the memory of my guilt-ridden speech, raising me to a place of life and movement (Eph 2:4-7). God takes my piercing words that draw a crimson flow and makes them white as snow (Isa 1:18). That is the beauty and mystery of forgiveness.
How can this be? Only through Christ, who unlike us bore no guilt in His body (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). And on the basis of Christ's work I can call to God, "Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!" (Psalm 25:7). In other words, see me not in my sin, but see me in Your love, in Your mercy, in Christ.
God's transcendent, overflowing mercy is the basis for me to deal with guilt. I can stand in Christ's eternal forgiveness and walk ahead free from guilt's weight. For Jesus states emphatically that "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36).
That doesn't erase my careless words or the hurt they caused. And surely Christ's mercy doesn't diminish the seriousness of my sin. Rather, my sin, a horrific affront to the purity and holiness of God, underscores the preciousness of the blood Jesus spilled for the sins of the world. His death and resurrection offer reconciliation and call me to change. And as the Spirit's work of grace makes me more like Christ, I will learn to control my tongue and sin less, meaning fewer and fewer reasons for added guilt.
I don't need to rehash my past verbal collisions if I've confessed them and pursued reconciliation, because Christ's mercy covers my failures. Instead, I must accept God's forgiveness and refuse to live defeated because Christ extends both eternal freedom for the future and enabling grace for today.
To take hold of this freedom, I pray, asking God to show me what is true today, what can and can't be done, and how real His forgiveness is. And I read and meditate on God's Word, allowing those words of life to renew my soul in Christ's transcendent mercy. I'll sometimes fail, letting loose my tongue and hurting others, but as Scripture says, "the righteous falls seven times and rises again" (Prov 24:16).
As a Christian, I don't sit paralyzed by guilt. I walk by the grace of God.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.